President Barack Obama's special envoy in the fight against Islamic State painted a portrait of the terrorist group as an organization in decline Friday, saying it had lost about 50 percent of its territory in Iraq, including access to the border region to Turkey.
Brett McGurk told White House reporters that morale among IS fighters was “plummeting,” illustrated by their own videos of leaders executing fighters on the battlefield and by increasing desertions. He said IS propaganda statements acknowledged the loss of territory and asked potential recruits to go to Libya instead of Syria.
Asked about the status of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, McGurk said he had "no reason to believe that he is not still alive," though he has not had any public appearances since late last year.
McGurk said that as the self-proclaimed leader of a caliphate, Baghdadi normally would have been expected to speak to his followers at the start of the holy month of Ramadan. He said Baghdadi’s reticence to appear in public showed that the group’s confidence was waning.
The envoy did not mention unconfirmed reports by a local source in Iraq alleging that Baghdadi and other Islamic State leaders were wounded Thursday in a coalition airstrike on one of their command headquarters near the Syrian border. The reports have not been independently verified.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul released a statement Friday claiming that the Obama administration was trying to “spin” a narrative that IS is on the run. The Texas Republican said he instead sees the militants on the march.
McCaul recently returned from a trip to several war zones in the Middle East. He said that in addition to a presence in Syria and Iraq, IS and its affiliates have gained a foothold in so-called "provinces" across the Middle East and North Africa, from Algeria to Pakistan — areas he said were ideal spots from which Islamist extremists could wage war on the West.
"Anywhere where you see failed states and power vacuums, these are launching pads for external operations,” he said.
Presidential envoy McGurk acknowledged that there were still tremendous challenges ahead in the fight against Islamic State. On Tuesday, Obama will be meeting with his top national security advisers at the U.S. Treasury Department to discuss efforts to deprive the group of funding.